Peloton's CEO on Advice That Helped Him Build a Billion-Dollar Company

Betty Liu interviews John Foley, Peloton Co-founder & CEO, as part of the Radiate CEO Series powered by Nasdaq. Foley discusses his vision for Peloton and how the business is rewriting tomorrow. He also offers his wisdom and experience around topics including management, entrepreneurship, leadership and more.

Some of the questions that John discusses with Betty provide insights for those seeking to innovate and launch their own business. They include:

  • As a leader, who do you look to or who do you aspire to?

  • What does "fail fast" mean?
  • For young managers, what advice would you give?
  • What's the best advice you have ever been given?

Below the video is the full transcript of Betty's conversation with John.

Betty Liu: John, great to see you. So, glad we are doing this. Okay, first question, you know a lot of people look at you as a leader. Not only leading this industry but just you yourself as an entrepreneur and a CEO. Who do you aspire to be as a leader and why?

John Foley: So, I look in all directions to try and find inspiration in leadership. I look to politics, so you think of Angela Merkel; you think of Michael Bloomberg obviously here in New York. In business, I am a student of who the great leaders of course going back to Jack Welsh. But in today’s world: Jack Ma, Jamie Dimon, Mark Benioff, and Carlos Brito. Some real inspiring people, that I look to and look up to and try and emulate as much as I can.

Betty Liu: And why? Is there a thread among those people?

John Foley: Yeah, I would say: hard work, compassion, leading from the front. So when I look to leadership it’s not just: business success, hard work, results but it is also the kindness and the compassion and the understanding of creating a culture that I would personally want to work in if I was a 25 year old, coming up and building my career.

Betty Liu: I love that having that empathy and that compassion, as well as part of leadership. You know when you think of things these words being thrown around these days: innovation, disruption. What comes to mind for you?

John Foley: I usually roll my eyes a little bit to be honest Betty. I think disruption and innovation is kind of an overused and misunderstood thing. You know the whole cliché, if its 1% inspiration 99% perspiration. I think that’s what I look up to and that’s certainly what it has been for Peloton. We had an idea six years ago; me and my cofounders and six years later, that idea has still held true but 99.99 percent of what we have done is just the hard yards of building a business. So when I look at innovators and disrupters I usually look at people who have worked hard and were able to lead, to your point.

Betty Liu: Sort of related to that is failing right, you know this and I know this. Behind every success is a bunch of failures.

John Foley: Sure.

Betty Liu: What are your attitudes, what is your view on failing? Do you have some failures you want to talk about and what you learned from them?

John Foley: I failed, like we were talking about, 400 out of 400 times I failed raising money for Peloton from institutional investors.

Betty Liu: Which is incredible to think about.

John Foley: Yeah, it was tough. So, looking back I knew we had something. I thought there was something here but why was the smart money saying no? What do they know that I don’t know? It was very challenging. I would say the confidence my parents gave me; to be honest and to just be myself. So for all the young parents out there; I have a 9 year old and a 6 year old. Giving them just general confidence so when they get the “no’s” and see the failures, they can get back up and know that it’s not them and they can succeed.

Betty Liu: Clearly, with your family but what about with your employees? How do you teach or how do you help your employees overcome as well their fear of failing or their failures as well.

John Foley: Yeah, we talk about it, we actively talk about failure and fail fast and creating a culture where failure is accepted and it’s applauded. It has to be a commitment from the top, it has to be talked about and celebrated. But you’re right we do at Peloton fail all the time.

Betty Liu: What does fail fast mean?

John Foley: Fail fast means- it sounds terrible -but you know, in some small ways you can push buggy code. Do you have, we say at Peloton, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” so we don’t let our code be perfect because it would take too long to QA it. So we go ahead and push it and there might be a bug or two but we quickly fix those bugs. So, that’s one tactile example of failing fast. We failed to push perfect code and we aspire to delight our customers, so we aren’t proud that we had a bug in our code but we thought that the burden and our customers would ultimately be happier if we are moving super-fast and pushing new features and innovating. We think they are going to ultimately be happier than if we would have worried about that bug for three months.

Betty Liu: It’s so true John, perfect is the enemy of good. You could just be constantly working on one thing and never do anything.

John Foley: That’s right.

Betty Liu: To just get it perfect. Let’s talk a little bit about, because I know it’s very important for you to have a company that people really want to work for.

John Foley: Sure

Betty Liu: And to have leaders within the company that people want to be led by. How do you keep your team motivated? What are things you do to keep them motivated?

John Foley: So, one of the biggest things is you give them autonomy. We have every hot shot, smart; you know, most of the people at the company -450 people, Betty- are smarter than I am and just as ambitious; so giving them the autonomy to run and to fail and to have a big piece of… we talk about a lot of these bigger companies that software engineers or other could go work for, they have a much bigger opportunity because Peloton is a smaller company so they have a big piece of the stake and we give them autonomy. We secede their failures, they learn on the job, they are not told what to do, they are given a direction and it’s kind of what you or I would want if we were 25- that type of opportunity to shine, really and do what you love to do.

Betty Liu: What would someone say it’s like to work for John Foley?

John Foley: I think, I hope no one would say “I work for John Foley.” I hope everyone would say, “I work with John Foley.” It is really a partnership of colleagues, my co-founders. I was telling you earlier about the president of Peloton, William Lynch, who in many ways is a much better, bigger leader than I am and he and I have been able to partner, check our egos and together I think one plus one equals three with the two of us but we have 40 people in the senior leadership at Peloton that I treat as a peer and then throughout the organization, we all have roles. It’s a very non -hierarchal work environment. I don’t think anyone works for John Foley, I feel like I have a role, and I see some of the hard work and the successes and the brilliance around me and I have to work hard to inspire these people and do my role well. So, I am worried about myself in some ways really trying to get my jobs done.

Betty Liu: And you know, you mentioned earlier just about people having that power to make decisions and that feeling that they essentially own their work. You know how do you execute on that though, because a lot of people will very rightly so maybe from habits from before or just take directions. So how do you encourage that at your company? That you can fail fast and you can own your decisions.

John Foley: So at Peloton, there is so much to do. I mean we are thinking about category expansion, we are thinking about market expansion and we also within our core bike platform we have so much feedback from our consumers, there are a list of 300 features that we are adding in the next six months.

Betty Liu: Oh wow.

John Foley: But are coming from our customers, our members. Our members are very engaged. We listen to them on social. We reach out to them. We have them on panels on HQ. There is such a big list of things to be done that we have to divide and conquer. It’s like Betty, you take half, and I’ll take half. Let’s slap high fives on the way to the bathroom and see how far we can go. It’s just kind of necessity is the mother of invention with Peloton. There is so much going on; everyone gets a big chunk of it and we try to celebrate the wins and not think about the failures.

Betty Liu: Right. It’s just basically there is so much to do that you can’t really think beyond that you have to get this done.

John Foley: That’s right.

Betty Liu: I want to talk a little bit about millennials. So let’s say you were to write a letter to your 21 year old self, what would you say?

John Foley: What’s funny, I have been thinking about this Betty. My nine year old son is starting to ask questions and have his own ambitions and so I am actually going through this at home. But the answer is to, it’s kind of cliché but it’s what any good parent would let their child I believe is find something your passionate about and do it well. You know as my wife and I are, whatever you do, just do it well. I think in New York there are a bunch of unhappy bankers and unhappy hedge fund managers and private equity people who went into it to make money and their miserable.

Betty Liu: It’s ridiculous.

John Foley: So from my perspective for my son and for my daughter, who is younger, I want them just to be happy and I think whether my son is into music right now. You don’t dream of your children going into the music industry but he is so passionate about it and there is money to be made and if he enjoys that and that pursuit and he is working hard towards that, I am going to support him and applaud that.

Betty Liu: Now for millennial managers or for young managers, what would be the three pieces of advice that you would give young managers?

John Foley: One of the biggest is to have the confidence to get out of the way; that you don’t need to actually manage. I might be an okay leader but I am probably a terrible manager because I don’t like managing and I am not good at it. So,

I think the key would be to surround yourself with people that are better than you, to tackle big challenges where there is so much hard work to go around that everyone has to divide and conquer and you have to do your part. So leading from the front is, what are you doing? I am not managing the people, what are you doing to show them that you are helping them get to that goal? And I think that leadership is the kind I would encourage in a young millennial; to be confident enough to not manage.

Betty Liu: Yeah, to not get in the way. Outside of the Peloton bike, what is the coolest product you use?

John Foley: Coolest product I use. Wow. I recently got a 28 foot whaler. I think it’s pretty awesome. I grew up in the Florida Keys in the 70s and 80s and boats have come a long way in the last 20 or 30 years. It’s a fantastic product. I know you were probably thinking something more technology driven.

Betty Liu: Yeah, no but that’s cool.

John Foley: It’s a cool thing.

Betty Liu: What’s the best advice you have ever gotten?

John Foley: So my brother in law has been a huge inspiration to me. He is a business leader as well; he is a little older. He has been my mentor and told me when I was staring Peloton, he said “don’t do consumer research, don’t do focus groups, don’t talk to anyone. Build a product on a platform that you and Jill- Jill is my wife, a platform that you and Jill would love. You are young parents. You like fitness. Build a product on a platform and an experience that you and Jill want and chances are there are a lot more people like you. That’s probably bad advice for some other people, for students of business where you should understand the market. In some weird ways I think it was brilliant. Jill and I are regular parents. We are regular New York City professionals. She works. I work. Time is valuable, we care about our kids, we care about spending time with our kids but we wanted that fitness so his idea of just building it for you and a couple of other people.

Betty Liu: That’s interesting

John Foley: I thought it was interesting.

Betty Liu: Just before we go John, what does rewriting tomorrow mean to you?

John Foley: To be honest Betty, I feel like we need better leadership in the world. So, I think when you think about politicians often times they will go to Washington and try and make laws. I think we need big time leaders on the world stage. Angela Merkel has done a nice job in Europe but I am not seeing that anywhere else in the world, where it’s some type of leadership where 25 year olds can look and say “wow, that’s where the future is going.” That is the type of thought leadership that we need in a global economy, not just our micro economies but thinking globally. Who is the leader? That is where my head goes when we talk about rewriting the future.

Betty Liu: That’s great. John, thank you so much.

John Foley: Thank you, Betty.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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